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The answer is, we don’t know. But let’s explore a bit anyway.

The last serious ad blocking report I saw was PageFair’s from 2017. Its main findings:

  • 615 million devices now use adblock
  • 11% of the global internet population is blocking ads on the web

In January 2016, GlobalWebIndex said “37% of mobile users … say they’ve blocked ads on their mobile within the last month.” I put that together with Statista’s 2017 claim that there were then more than 4.6 billion mobile phone users in the world, meaning 1.7 billion people were blocking ads by that time.

Now GlobalWebIndex‘s Global Ad-Blocking Behavior report says 47% of us are blocking ads now. It also says, “As a younger and more engaged audience, ad-blockers also are much more likely to be paying subscribers and consumers. Ad-free premium services are especially attractive.” Which is pretty close to Don Marti‘s long-standing claim that readers who protect their privacy are more valuable than readers who don’t.

And now there is also this, from Internet World Stats:

That’s less than Statista said in 2016: “In 2019 the number of mobile phone users is forecast to reach 4.68 billion.” But that was a 2016 estimate, so let’s play with InternetWorldStats’ lower 2019 number.

Since GlobalWebIndex says 47% of us are using ad blockers, and Internet World Stats says there were 4,312,982,270 Internet users by the end of last year, that says more than 2,027,101.667 people are now blocking ads worldwide.

So, we might generalize, more than two billion people are blocking ads today.

Perspective: back in 2015, we were already calling ad blocking The biggest boycott in human history. And that was when the number was just “approaching 200 million.”

If we combine that Internet World Stats total users number with GlobalWebIndex’s breakouts of listed reasons why those surveyed block ads, you get these:

  • 1,638,933,263, or 38%, listed Ads contain viruses or bugs
  • 1,121,375,390, or 26%, listed Ads might compromise my online privacy, and
  • 948,856,099, or 22%, listed Stop ads being personalized.

That’s a pretty big market for privacy tools and services. But are the numbers reliable?

Well, I rely on Dr. Augustine Fou (@acfou) to think and work more deeply and knowingly than I’ve done so far here. Looking at the above, he tweets, “I dispute these findings. ASKING people if they used an ad blocker in the past month is COMPLETELY inaccurate and inconsistent with people who ACTUALLY USE ad blockers regularly.” Also, “Source: GlobalWebIndex Q3 2018 Base: 93,803 internet users aged 16-64, among which were 42,078 respondents who have used an ad-blocker in the past month”. Then, “Are you going to take numbers extrapolated from 42,078 respondents and extrapolate that to the entire world? that would NOT be OK.” And, “Desktop ad blocking in the U.S. measured directly on sites which humans visit is in the 8 – 19% range. Bots must also be scrubbed because bots do not block ads and will skew ad blocking rates lower, if not removed.” On that last tweet he points to his own research, published this month. Then he adds, “your point about this being the “biggest boycott in human history” is still valid. But the numbers from that ad blocking study should not be used.”

So what can we use? Are all our sources (other than Augustine’s) reliable?

PageFair is hasn’t produced ad blocking numbers since 2017, and even then its business was fighting ad blocking, which meant it had a stake in research outcome. The same was true for ClarityRay when it produced the earliest ad blocking numbers I saw, back in 2012. (ClarityRay was acquired by Yahoo in 2014.) Global Web Index appears to be serious, but I still take Augustine’s main point: it’s better to know what people actually do with their devices than to ask them what they do. And their sample base does seem too small for global extrapolations across billions of people. And Internet World Stats appears to be a product of the Miniwatts Marketing Group, whose website is currently a blank WordPress placeholder.

Statista seems serious, but Ad blocking user penetration rate in the United States from 2014 to 2020 is behind a paywall. Still, they do expose this much: “The statistic presents data on ad blocking user penetration rate in the United States from 2014 to 2020. It was found that 25.2 percent of U.S. internet users blocked ads on their connected devices in 2018. This figure is projected to grow to 27.5 percent in 2020.”

Meaning that the market is, at the very least, sending a massive message.

I invite all those mentioned above to weigh in with whatever they’ve got. I’ll update this accordingly. Thanks.

 

The Spinner* (with the asterisk) is “a service that enables you to subconsciously influence a specific person, by controlling the content on the websites he or she usually visits.” Meaning you can hire The Spinner* to hack another person.

It works like this:

  1. You pay The Spinner* $29. For example, to urge a friend to stop smoking. (That’s the most positive and innocent example the company gives.)
  2. The Spinner* provides you with an ordinary link you then text to your friend. When that friend clicks on the link, they get a tracking cookie that works as a bulls-eye for The Spinner* to hit with 10 different articles written specifically to influence that friend. He or she “will be strategically bombarded with articles and media tailored to him or her.” Specifically, 180 of these things. Some go in social networks (notably Facebook) while most go into “content discovery platforms” such as Outbrain and Revcontent (best known for those clickbait collections you see appended to publishers’ websites).

The Spinner* is also a hack on journalism, designed like a magic trick to misdirect moral outrage toward The Spinner’s obviously shitty business, and away from the shitty business called adtech, which not only makes The Spinner possible, but pays for most of online journalism as well.

The magician behind The Spinner* is “Elliot Shefler.” Look that name up and you’ll find hundreds of stories. Here are a top few, to which I’ve added some excerpts and notes:

  • For $29, This Man Will Help Manipulate Your Loved Ones With Targeted Facebook And Browser Links, by Parmy Olson @parmy in Forbes. Excerpt: He does say that much of his career has been in online ads and online gambling. At its essence, The Spinner’s software lets people conduct a targeted phishing attack, a common approach by spammers who want to secretly grab your financial details or passwords. Only in this case, the “attacker” is someone you know. Shefler says his algorithms were developed by an agency with links to the Israeli military.
  • For $29, This Company Swears It Will ‘Brainwash’ Someone on Facebook, by Kevin Poulson (@kpoulson) in The Daily Beast. A subhead adds, A shadowy startup claims it can target an individual Facebook user to bend him or her to a client’s will. Experts are… not entirely convinced.
  • Facebook is helping husbands ‘brainwash’ their wives with targeted ads, by Simon Chandler (@_simonchandler_) in The Daily Dot. Excerpt: Most critics assume that Facebook’s misadventures relate only to its posting of ads paid for by corporations and agencies, organizations that aim to puppeteer the “average” individual. It turns out, however, that the social network also now lets this same average individual place ads that aim to manipulate other such individuals, all thanks to the mediation of a relatively new and little-known company…
  • Brainwashing your wife to want sex? Here is adtech at its worst., by Samuel Scott (@samueljscott) in The Drum. Alas, the piece is behind a registration wall that I can’t climb without fucking myself (or so I fear, since the terms and privacy policy total 32 pages and 10,688 words I’m not going to read), so I can’t quote from it.
  • Creepy company hopes ‘Inception’ method will get your wife in the mood, by Saqib Shah (@eightiethmnt) in The Sun, via The New York Post. Excerpt: “It’s unethical in many ways,” admitted Shefler, adding “But it’s the business model of all media. If you’re against it, you’re against all media.” He picked out Nike as an example, explaining that if you visit the brand’s website it serves you a cookie, which then tailors the browsing experience to you every time you come back. A shopping website would also use cookies to remember the items you’re storing in a virtual basket before checkout. And a social network might use cookies to track the links you click and then use that information to show you more relevant or interesting links in the future…The Spinner started life in January of this year. Shefler claims the company is owned by a larger, London-based “agency” that provides it with “big data” and “AI” tools.
  • Adtech-for-sex biz tells blockchain consent app firm, ‘hold my beer’, by Rebecca Hill (@beckyhill) in The Register. The subhead says, Hey love, just click on this link… what do you mean, you’re seeing loads of creepy articles?
  • New Service Promises to Manipulate Your Wife Into Having Sex With You, by Fiona Tapp (@fionatappdotcom) in Rolling Stone. Excerpt: The Spinner team suggests that there isn’t any difference, in terms of morality, from a big company using these means to influence a consumer to book a flight or buy a pair of shoes and a husband doing the same to his wife. Exactly.
  • The Spinner And The Faustian Bargain Of Anonymized Data, by Lauren Arevalo-Downes (whose Twitter link by the piece goes to a 404) in A List Daily. On that site, the consent wall that creeps up from the bottom almost completely blanks out the actual piece, and I’m not going to “consent,” so no excertoing here either.
  • Can you brainwash one specific person with targeted Facebook ads? in TripleJ Hack, by ABC.net.au. Excerpt: Whether or not the Spinner has very many users, whether or not someone is going to stop drinking or propose marriage simply because they saw a sponsored post in their feed, it seems feasible that someone can try to target and brainwash a single person through Facebook.
  • More sex, no smoking – even a pet dog – service promises to make you a master of manipulation, by Chris Keall (@ChrisKeall) in The New Zealand Herald. Excerpt: On one level, The Spinner is a jape, rolled out as a colour story by various publications. But on another level it’s a lot more sinister: apparently yet another example of Facebook’s platform being abused to invade privacy and manipulate thought.
  • The Cambridge Analytica of Sex: Online service to manipulate your wife to have sex with you, by Ishani Ghose in meaww. Excerpt: The articles are all real but the headlines and the descriptions have been changed by the Spinner team. The team manipulating the headlines of these articles include a group of psychologists from an unnamed university. As the prepaid ads run, the partner will see headlines such as “3 Reasons Why YOU Should Initiate Sex With Your Husband” or “10 Marriage Tips Every Woman Needs to Hear”.

Is Spinner for real?

“Elliot Shefler” is human for sure. But his footprint online is all PR. He’s not on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. The word “Press” (as in coverage) at the top of the Spinner website is just a link to a Google search for Elliot Shefler, not to curated list such as a real PR person or agency might compile.

Fortunately, a real PR person, Rich Leigh (@RichLeighPR) did some serious digging (you know, like a real reporter) and presented his findings in his blog, PR Examples, in a post titled Frustrated husbands can ‘use micro-targeted native ads to influence their wives to initiate sex’ – surely a PR stunt? Please, a PR stunt? It ran last July 10th, the day after Rich saw this tweet by Maya Kosoff (@mekosoff):

—and this one:

The links to (and in) those tweets no longer work, but the YouTube video behind one of the links is still up. The Spinner itself produced the video, which is tricked to look like a real news story. (Rich does some nice detective work, figuring that out.) The image above is a montage I put together from screenshots of the video.

Here’s some more of what Rich found out:

  • Elliot – not his real name, incidentally, his real name is Halib, a Turkish name (he told me) – lives, or told me he lives, in Germany

  • When I asked him directly, he assured me that it was ‘real’, and when I asked him why it didn’t work when I tried to pay them money, told me that it would be a technical issue that would take around half an hour to fix, likely as a result of ‘high traffic. I said I’d try again later. I did – keep reading

  • It is emphatically ‘not’ PR or marketing for anything

  • He told me that he has 5-6,000 paying users – that’s $145,000 – $174,000, if he’s telling the truth

  • Halib said that Google Ads were so cheap as nobody was bidding on them for the terms he was going for, and they were picking up traffic for ‘one or two cents’

  • He banked on people hate-tweeting it. “I don’t mind what they feel, as long as they think something”, Halib said – which is scarily like something I’ve said in talks I’ve given about coming up with PR ideas that bang

  • The service ‘works’ by dropping a cookie, which enables it to track the person you’re trying to influence in order to serve specific content. I know we had that from the site, but it’s worth reiterating

Long post short, Rich says Habib and/or Elliot is real, and so is The Spinner.

But what matters isn’t whether or not The Spinner is real. It’s that The Spinner misdirects reporters’ attention away from what adtech is and does, which is spy on people for the purpose of aiming stuff at them. And that adtech isn’t just what funds all of Facebook and much of Google (both giant and obvious targets of journalistic scrutiny), but what funds nearly all of publishing online, including most reporters’ salaries.

So let’s look deeper, starting here: There is no moral difference between planting an unseen tracking beacon on a person’s digital self and doing the same on a person’s physical self.

The operational difference is that in the online world it’s a helluva lot easier to misdirect people into thinking they’re not being spied on. Also a helluva lot easier for spies and intermediaries (such as publishers) to plausibly deny that spying is what they’re doing. And to excuse it, saying for example “It’s what pays for the Free Internet!” Which is bullshit, because the Internet, including the commercial Web, got along fine for many years before adtech turned the whole thing into Mos Eisley. And it will get along fine without adtech after we kill it, or it dies of its own corruption.

Meanwhile the misdirection continues, and it’s away from a third rail that honest and brave journalists† need to grab: that adtech is also what feeds most of them.

______________

† I’m being honest here, but not brave. Because I’m safe. I don’t work for a publication that’s paid by adtech. At Linux Journal, we’re doing the opposite, by being the first publication ready to accept terms that our readers proffer, starting with Customer CommonsP2B1(beta), which says “Just show me ads not based on tracking me.”

In a press release, Amazon explained why it backed out of its plan to open a new headquarters in New York City:

For Amazon, the commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive, collaborative relationships with state and local elected officials who will be supportive over the long-term. While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City.

So, even if the economics were good, the politics were bad.

The hmm for me is why not New Jersey? Given the enormous economic and political overhead of operating in New York, I’m wondering why Amazon didn’t consider New Jersey first. Or if it’s thinking about it now.

New Jersey is cheaper and (so I gather) friendlier, at least tax-wise. It also has the country’s largest port (one that used to be in New York, bristling Manhattan’s shoreline with piers and wharves, making look like a giant paramecium) and is a massive warehousing and freight forwarding hub. In fact Amazon already has a bunch of facilities there (perhaps including its own little port on Arthur Kill). I believe there are also many more places to build on the New Jersey side. (The photo above, shot on approach to Newark Airport, looks at New York across some of those build-able areas.)

And maybe that’s the plan anyway, without the fanfare.

As it happens, I’m in the midst of reading Robert Caro‘s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (Which is massive. There’s a nice summary in The Guardian here.) This helps me appreciate the power of urban planning, and how thoughtful and steel-boned opposition to some of it can be fully useful. One example of that is Jane Jacobs’ thwarting of Moses’ plan to run a freeway through Greeenwich Village. He had earlier done the same through The Bronx, with the Cross Bronx Expressway. While that road today is an essential stretch of the northeast transport corridor, at the time it was fully destructive to urban life in that part of the city—and in many ways still is.

So I try to see both sides of an issue such as this. What’s constructive and what’s destructive in urban planning are always hard to pull apart.

For an example close to home, I often wonder if it’s good that Fort Lee is now almost nothing but high-rises? This is the town my grandfather helped build (he was the head carpenter for D.W. Griffith when Fort Lee was the first Hollywood), where my father grew up climbing the Palisades for fun, and where he later put his skills to work as cable rigger, helping build the George Washington Bridge. The Victorian house Grandpa built for his family on Hoyt Avenue, and where my family lived when I was born, stood about as close to a giant new glass box called The Modern as I am from the kitchen in the apartment I’m writing this, a few blocks away from The Bridge on the other side of the Hudson. It’s paved now, by a road called Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. Remember Bridgegate? That happened right where our family home stood, in a pleasant neighborhood of which nothing remains.

Was the disappearance of that ‘hood a bad thing? Not by now, long after the neighborhood was erased and nearly everyone who lived has died or has long since moved on. Thousands more live there now than ever did when it was a grid of nice homes on quiet, tree-lined streets.

All urban developments are omelettes made of broken eggs. If you’re an egg, you’ve got reason to complain. If you’re a cook, you’d better make a damn fine omelette.

This is a game for our time. I play it on New York and Boston subways, but you can play it anywhere everybody in a crowd is staring at their personal rectangle.

I call it Rectangle Bingo.

Here’s how you play. At the moment when everyone is staring down at their personal rectangle, you shoot a pano of the whole scene. Nobody will see you because they’re not present: they’re absorbed in rectangular worlds outside their present space/time.

Then you post your pano somewhere search engines will find it, and hashtag it #RectangularBingo.

Then, together, we’ll think up some way to recognize winners.

Game?

Tags:

I want to point to three great posts.

First is Larry Lessig‘s Podcasting and the Slow Democracy Movement. A pull quote:

The architecture of the podcast is the precise antidote for the flaws of the present. It is deep where now is shallow. It is insulated from ads where now is completely vulnerable. It is a chance for thinking and reflection; it has an attention span an order of magnitude greater than the Tweet. It is an opportunity for serious (and playful) engagement. It is healthy eating for a brain-scape that now gorges on fast food.

If 2016 was the Twitter election — fast food, empty calorie content driving blood pressure but little thinking — then 2020 must be the podcast election — nutrient-rich, from every political perspective. Not sound bites driven by algorithms, but reflective and engaged humans doing what humans still do best: thinking with empathy about ideals that could make us better — as humans, not ad-generating machines.

There is hope here. We need to feed it.

I found that through a Radio Open Source email pointing to the show’s latest podcast, The New Normal. I haven’t heard that one yet; but I am eager to, because I suspect the “new normal” may be neither. And, as I might not with Twitter, I am foregoing judgement until I do hear it. The host is also Chris Lydon, a friend whose podcast pionering owes to collaboration with Dave Winer, who invented the form of RSS used by nearly all the world’s podcasters, and who wrote my third recommended post, Working Together, in 2019. That one is addressed to Chris and everyone else bringing tools and material to the barns we’re raising together. The title says it all, but read it anyway.

Work is how we feed the hope Larry talks about.

 

The original pioneer in space-based telephony isn’t @ElonMusk (though he deserves enormous credit for his work in the field, the latest example of which is SpaceX‘s 7,518-satellite Starlink network, and which has been making news lately). It’s the people behind the Iridium satellite constellation, the most driven and notorious of which was Ed Staiano.

Much has been written about Iridium’s history, and Ed’s role in driving its satellites into space, most of it negative toward Ed. But I’ve always thought that was at least partly unfair. Watching the flow of news about Iridium at the time it was moving from ground to sky, it was clear to me that Iridium would have remained on the ground if Ed wasn’t a tough bastard about making it fly.

My ad agency, Hodskins Simone & Searls, worked for Ed when he was at Motorola in pre-Iridium days. He was indeed a tough taskmaster: almost legendarily demanding and impatient with fools. But I never had a problem with him. And I believe it’s a testimony to Ed’s vision and persistence that Iridium is still up there, doing the job he wanted it to do, and paving the way for Elon and others (including @IridiumComm itself).

So hats off, Ed. Hope you’re doing well.

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We live in two worlds now: the natural one where we have bodies that obey the laws of gravity and space/time, and the virtual one where there is no gravity or distance (though there is time).

In other words, we are now digital as well as physical beings, and this is new to a human experience where, so far, we are examined and manipulated like laboratory animals by giant entities that are out of everybody’s control—including theirs.

The collateral effects are countless and boundless.

Take journalism, for example. That’s what I did in a TEDx talk I gave last month in Santa Barbara:

I next visited several adjacent territories with a collection of brilliant folk at the Ostrom Workshop on Smart Cities. (Which was live-streamed, but I’m not sure is archived yet. Need to check.)

Among those folk was Brett Frischmann, whose canonical work on infrastructure I covered here, and who in Re-Engineering Humanity (with Evan Selinger) explains exactly how giants in the digital infrastructure business are hacking the shit out of us—a topic I also visit in Engineers vs. Re-Engineering (my August editorial in Linux Journal).

Now also comes Bruce Schneier, with his perfectly titled book Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-Connected World, which Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times sources in A Future Where Everything Becomes a Computer Is as Creepy as You Feared. Pull-quote: “In our government-can’t-do-anything-ever society, I don’t see any reining in of the corporate trends.”

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, a monumental work due out in January (and for which I’ve seen some advance galleys) Shoshana Zuboff makes both cases (and several more) at impressive length and depth.

Privacy plays in all of these, because we don’t have it yet in the digital world. Or not much of it, anyway.

In reverse chronological order, here’s just some what I’ve said on the topic:

So here we are: naked in the virtual world, just like we were in the natural one before we invented clothing and shelter.

And that’s the challenge: to equip ourselves to live private and safe lives, and not just public and endangered ones, in our new virtual world.

Some of us have taken up that challenge too: with ProjectVRM, with Customer Commons, and with allied efforts listed here.

And I’m optimistic about our prospects.

I’ll also be detailing that optimism in the midst of a speech titled “Why adtech sucks and needs to be killed” next Wednesday (October 17th) at An Evening with Advertising Heretics in NYC. Being at the Anne L. Bernstein Theater on West 50th, it’s my off-Broadway debut. The price is a whopping $10.

 

 

fruit thought

If personal data is actually a commodity, can you buy some from another person, as if that person were a fruit stand? Would you want to?

Not yet. Or maybe not really.

Either way, that’s the idea behind the urge by some lately to claim personal data as personal property, and then to make money (in cash, tokens or cryptocurrency) by selling or otherwise monetizing it. The idea in all these cases is to somehow participate in existing (entirely extractive) commodity markets for personal data.

ProjectVRM, which I direct, is chartered to “foster development of tools and services that make customers both independent and better able to engage,” and is a big tent. That’s why on the VRM Developments Work page of the ProjectVRM wiki is a heading called Markets for Personal Data. Listed there are:

So we respect that work. We also need to recognize some problems it faces.

The first problem is that, economically speaking, data is a public good, meaning non-rivalrous and non-excludable. (Rivalrous means consumption or use by one party prevents the same by another, and excludable means you can prevent parties that don’t pay from access to it.) Here’s a table from Linux Journal column I wrote a few years ago:

Excludability Excludability
YES NO
Rivalness YES Private good: good: e.g., food, clothing, toys, cars, products subject to value-adds between first sources and final customers Common pool resource: e.g., sea, rivers, forests, their edible inhabitants and other useful contents
Rivalness NO Club good: e.g., bridges, cable TV, private golf courses, controlled access to copyrighted works Public good: e.g., data, information, law enforcement, national defense, fire fighting, public roads, street lighting

 

The second problem is that nature of data as a public good also inconveniences claims that it ought to be property. Thomas Jefferson explained this in his 1813 letter to Isaac MacPherson:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation

Of course Jefferson never heard of data. But what he says about “the thinking power called an idea,” and how ideas are like fire, is essential in a very human way.

The third problem is that all of us as human beings are able to produce forms of value that far exceed that of our raw personal data.

Specifically, treating data as if it were a rivalrous and excludable commodity—such as corn, oil or fruit—not only takes Jefferson’s “thinking power” off the table, but misdirects attention, investment and development work away from supporting the human outputs that are fully combustible, and might be expansible over all space, without lessening density. Ideas can do that. Oil can’t, even though it’s combustible.

Put another way, why would you want to make almost nothing (the likely price) selling personal data on a commodity basis when you can make a lot more by selling your work where markets for work exist?

What makes us fully powerful as human beings is our ability to generate and share ideas and other combustible public goods, and not just to slough off data like so much dandruff. Or to be valued only for the labors we contribute as parts of industrial machines.

Important note: I’m not knocking labor here. Most of us have to work for wages as parts of industrial machines, or as independent actors. I do too. There is full honor in that. Yet our nature as distinctive and valuable human beings is to be more and other than a source of labor alone, and there are ways to make money from that fact too.

Many years ago JP Rangaswami (@jobsworth) and I made a distinction between making money with something and because of something. It’s a helpful one.

Example: I don’t make money with this blog. But I do make money because of it—and probably a lot more money than I would if this blog carried advertising or if I did it for a wage.

Which gets us to the idea behind declaring personal data as personal property, and creating marketplaces where people can sell their data.

The idea goes like this: there is a $trillion or more in business activity that trades or relies on personal data in many ways. Individual sources of that data should be able to get in on the action.

Alas, most of that $trillion is in what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism: a giant snake-ball of B2B activity wherein there is little interest in buying what can be had for free.

Worse, surveillance capitalism’s business is making guesses about you so it can sell you shit. On a per-message basis, this works about 0% of the time, even though massive amounts of money flow through that B2B snakeball (visualized as abstract rectangles here and here). Many reasons for that. Here are a few:

  1. Most of the time, such as right here and now, you’re not buying a damn thing, and not in a mood to be bothered by someone telling you what to buy.
  2. Companies paying other companies to push shit at you do not have your interests at heart—not even if their messages to you are, as they like to put it, “relevant” or “interest based.” (Which they almost always are not.)
  3. The entrails of surveillance capitalism are fully infected with fraud and malware.
  4. Surveillance capitalism is also quite satisfied to soak up to 97% of an advertising spend before an ad’s publisher gets its 3% for pushing an ad at you.

Trying to get in on that business is just an awful proposition.

Yes, I know it isn’t just surveillance capitalists who hunger for personal data. The health care business, for example, can benefit enormously from it, and is less of a snakeball, on the whole. But what will it pay you? And why should it pay you?

Won’t large quantities of anonymized personal data from iOS and Android devices, handed over freely, be more valuable to medicine and pharma than the few bits of data individuals might sell? (Apple has already ventured in that direction, very carefully, also while not paying for any personal data.)

And isn’t there something kinda suspect about personal data for sale? Such as motivating the unscrupulous to alter some of their data so it’s worth more?

What fully matters for people in the digital world is agency, not data. Agency is the power to act with full effect in the world. It’s what you have when you put your pants on, when you walk, or drive, or tell somebody something useful while they listen respectfully. It’s what you get when you make a deal with an equal.

It’s not what any of us get when we’re just “users” on a platform. Or when we click “agree” to one-sided terms the other party can change and we can’t. Both of those are norms in Web 2.0 and desperately need to be killed.

It’s still early. Web 2.0 is an archaic stage in the formation of the digital world. surveillance capitalism has also been a bubble ready to pop for years. The matter is when, not if. It’s too absurd, corrupt, complex and annoying to keep living forever.

So let’s give people ways to increase their agency, at scale, in the digital world. There’s no scale in selling one’s personal data. But there’s plenty in putting our most human of powers to work.

The most basic form of agency in the digital world is control over how our personal data might be used by others. There are lots of developers at work on this already. Here’s one list at ProjectVRM.

Bonus links:

 

 

 

 

How would you feel if you had been told in the early days of the Web that in the year 2018 you would still need logins and passwords for damned near everything.

Your faith in the tech world would be deeply shaken, no?

And what if you had been told that in 2018 logins and passwords would now be required for all kinds of other shit, from applications on mobile devices to subscription services on TV?

Or worse, that in 2018 you would be rob-logged-out of sites and services frequently, whether you were just there or not, for security purposes — and that logging back in would often require “two factor” authentication, meaning you have to do even more work to log in to something, and that (also for security purposes) every password you use would not only have be different, but impossible for any human to remember, especially when average connected human now has hundreds of login/password combinations, many of which change constantly?

Would you not imagine this to be a dystopian hell?

Welcome to now, folks. Our frog is so fully boiled that it looks like Brunswick stew.

Can we please fix this?

Please, please, please, tech world: move getting rid of logins and passwords to the top of your punch list, ahead of AI, ML, IoT, 5G, smart dust, driverless cars and going to Mars.

Your home planet thanks you.

[Addendum…] Early responses to this post suggest that I’m talking about fixing the problem at the superficial level of effects. So, to clarify, logins and passwords are an effect, and not a cause of anything other than inconvenience and annoyance. The causes are design and tech choices made long ago—choices that can be changed.

Not only that, but many people have been working on solving the identity side of this thing for many years. In fact we’re about to have our 27th Internet Identity Workshop in October at the Computer History Museum. If you want to work on this with other people who are doing the same, register here.

 

In Chatbots were the next big thing: what happened?, Justin Lee (@justinleejw) nicely unpacks how chatbots were overhyped to begin with and continue to fail their Turing tests, especially since humans in nearly all cases would  rather talk to humans than to mechanical substitutes.

There’s also a bigger and more fundamental reason why bots still aren’t a big thing: we don’t have them. If we did, they’d be our robot assistants, going out to shop for us, to get things fixed, or to do whatever.

Why didn’t we get bots of our own?

I can pinpoint the exact time and place where bots of our own failed to happen, and all conversation and development went sideways, away from the vector that takes us to bots of our own (hashtag: #booo), and instead toward big companies doing more than ever to deal with us robotically, mostly to sell us shit.

The time was April 2016, and the place was Facebook’s F8 conference. It was on stage there that Mark Zuckerberg introduced “messenger bots”. He began,

Now that Messenger has scaled, we’re starting to develop ecosystems around it. And the first thing we’re doing is exploring how you can all communicate with businesses.

Note his use of the second person you. He’s speaking to audience members as individual human beings. He continued,

You probably interact with dozens of businesses every day. And some of them are probably really meaningful to you. But I’ve never met anyone who likes calling a business. And no one wants to have to install a new app for every service or business they want to interact with. So we think there’s gotta be a better way to do this.

We think you should be able to message a business the same way you message a friend. You should get a quick response, and it shouldn’t take your full attention, like a phone call would. And you shouldn’t have to install a new app.

This promised pure VRM: a way for a customer to relate to a vendor. For example, to issue a service request, or to intentcast for bids on a new washing machine or a car.

So at this point Mark seemed to be talking about a new communication channel that could relieve the typical pains of being a customer while also opening the floodgates of demand notifying supply when it’s ready to buy. Now here’s where it goes sideways:

So today we’re launching Messenger Platform. So you can build bots for Messenger.

By “you” Zuck now means developers. He continues,

And it’s a simple platform, powered by artificial intelligence, so you can build natural language services to communicate directly with people. So let’s take a look.

See the shift there? Up until that last sentence, he seemed to be promising something for people, for customers, for you and me: a better way to deal with business. But alas, it’s just shit:

CNN, for example, is going to be able to send you a daily digest of stories, right into messenger. And the more you use it, the more personalized it will get. And if you want to learn more about a specific topic, say a Supreme Court nomination or the zika virus, you just send a message and it will send you that information.

And right there the opportunity was lost. And all the promise, up there at the to of the hype cycle. Note how Aaron Batalion uses the word “reach” in  ‘Bot’ is the wrong name…and why people who think it’s silly are wrong, written not long after Zuck’s F8 speech: “In a micro app world, you build one experience on the Facebook platform and reach 1B people.”

What we needed, and still need, is for reach to go the other way: a standard bot design that would let lots of developers give us better ways to reach businesses. Today lots of developers compete to give us better ways to use the standards-based tools we call browsers and email clients. The same should be true of bots.

In Market intelligence that flows both ways, I describe one such approach, based on open source code, that doesn’t require locating your soul inside a giant personal data extraction business.

Here’s a diagram that shows how one person (me in this case) can relate to a company whose moccasins he owns:

vrmcrmconduit

The moccasins have their own pico: a cloud on the Net for a thing in the physical world: one that becomes a standard-issue conduit between customer and company.

A pico of this type might come in to being when the customer assigns a QR code to the moccasins and scans it. The customer and company can then share records about the product, or notify the other party when there’s a problem, a bargain on a new pair, or whatever. It’s tabula rasa: wide open.

The current code for this is called Wrangler. It’s open source and in Github. For the curious, Phil Windley explains how picos work in Reactive Programming With Picos.

It’s not bots yet, but it’s a helluva lot better place to start re-thinking and re-developing what bots should have been in the first place. Let’s start developing there, and not inside giant silos.

[Note: the image at the top is from this 2014 video by Capgemini explaining #VRM. Maybe now that Facebook is doing face-plants in the face of the GDPR, and privacy is finally a thing, the time is ripe, not only for #booos, but for the rest of the #VRM portfolio of unfinished and un-begun work on the personal side.]

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